Well, of course we may.
But, to focus the question down: May we speak of indelible, God-given, complementary roles for men and women?
Kevin Giles (What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women) is a strident critic of this notion, and I want to look carefully at his concerns.
I’ll begin with a summary of Giles’ critique. Then, I’ll offer a few comments by way of response.
Giles credits George Knight III with the ‘invention’ of evangelical complementarianism, in his 1977 book New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women.
Knight rejected the traditional idea of men as ‘superior’ and women as ‘inferior’ in favour of the idea that men and women are ‘equal but different’. Their difference comes from the fact that God has assigned different, and indelible, ‘roles’ to each sex. These roles were given in creation, before the fall.
For Knight, Galatians 3:28 speaks only of spiritual equality. 1 Timothy 2:11-14 forbids a woman from teaching in church and from having authority over a man. Her subordination is grounded in creation. The verb authentein speaks positively of the authority which belongs to a male pastor, but which is denied to a woman.
1 Corinthians 11:3 establishes the role relationship of men and women by placing it in a hierarchy of headships, from Father to Son to man to woman. Thus, the subordination of women is grounded not only in creation but also in the eternal life of God. The word kephale denotes superior rank. There are ontological implications, and insofar as this teaching claims that there is an eternally ordered hierarchy within the Trinity, Knight and those who came after him are (claims Giles) breaking with historic orthodoxy, as expressed in the Athanasian Creed and other statements of faith.
In appealing to 1 Corinthians 14:33b-38, Knight argues that this text prohibits women form teaching men in church, and grounds this prohibition in creation.
Knight’s approach has been almost universally embraced by complementarians. But it is, in fact, merely the traditional position in disguise, re-wording it to make it sound more acceptable to modern ears.
It was in 1991, with the symposium edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism) that the term ‘complementarianism’ was recuited for the position first development by Knight.
Knight was by no means the first person to speak and write about male and female ‘roles’. What he did was to give this word a new content:
‘For him, a “role” was a creation-given power relationship, allocated on the basis of gender, which was the primary thing that differentiated men and women’ (p48).
Knight’s approach has been followed, exactly, by the Kostenbergers, in their 2016 book God’s Design for Man and Woman.
But, says Giles, there is no justification for predicating male-female differentiation on creational ‘role’ differences.
The word ‘role’ in not found in any widely used English translation of the Bible. Its use in modern English is based on the French equivalent, which originated in the 19th century theatre and then was adopted in the early 20th century by sociologists.
In standard (dictionary) usage, the word ‘role’ (or ‘function’) refers to characteristic behaviours that can change.
Complementarians exploit the word ‘role’ to disguise the fact that what they are really teaching are indelible power differences, in which it is the ‘role’ of men to lead, and of women to follow. But this is a novel use, and a misuse, of the word ‘role’. The word properly applies to characteristic but changeable behaviours. And so we speak of who does the gardening, the shopping, the cooking, as their ‘role’.
But for complementarians, ‘role’ has a completely different meaning. It is a person-defining category. It speaks of fixed power relations, not role relations that may change from person to person and from time to time.
Complementarians try to prove that their view does not entail subordination of being or inferiority of person by the use of carefully-chosen illustrations. They are that the roles of ship’s captain and crew member, of army officer and private, and of manager and worker, do not imply ontological differences, or superiority and inferiority. This is so; but only because the roles in question are not unchangeable and because the higher role invariably has some basis in competence, training, age, and so on. It is not ascribed at birth or by gender.
More exact parallels with the complementarian notion of ‘role’, however, would be found in classic aristocracy, in the Hindu caste system, in race-based slavery, and in apartheid. In these cases, the one who rules is understood to be of a superior class or status than the one who obeys, based on the premise that some are born to rule, and some to obey.
By invoking the relationship between the Father and the Son, and by positing an ontological difference between them, complementarians are denying the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.
‘Evangelical egalitarians have strongly objected to this use of the word “role,” and made devastating critiques of it,126 but their protests have been ignored or dismissed summarily. The Köstenbergers know these critiques of the use of the word “role” but they never mention them. This is inexcusable in a supposedly scholarly work’ (p50)
What is to be made of Giles’ critique?
Firstly, the objection that the word ‘role’ is of recent origin, and is not to be found in any main-stream English translations of the Bible, is irrelevant. Theology finds legitimate uses for a number of words that are not to be found in Scripture. ‘Trinity’, for example.
Secondly, Giles conflates the everyday and technical meanings of the word ‘role’. At times, he is evidently content for the work to serve as a pseudonym for ‘function’ (as it usually does for complementarian writers). At other times, he assumes the more technical meaning as used by sociologists and social psychologists.
Thirdly, Giles insinuates the notion that male authority (and therefore the patterns of behaviour that arise from this, on the part of both men and women) is necessarily a ‘bad thing’.
Fourthly, Giles seems unable, or unwilling, to explain what, in his view, male/female differentiation would look like, if it did not entail differences in ‘role’ or ‘function’. The most that he is prepared to say is that egalitarians do not deny such differentiation, and that it boils down to physical, rather than functional, differences.
Fifthly, Giles seems to find the notion of ‘equal (in being) but different (in function)’ impossible to accept.